Written by Lucy Steffes
The curse of the Engineering Centers Building strikes again! After two fires and two floods over the lifetime of the building, how will the community of the College of Engineering recover from yet another disaster?
History repeats itself. That’s the saying. While usually applied to large-scale societal events – war, epidemics, famine, natural disasters – the Engineering Centers Building (ECB) at UW-Madison and the College of Engineering find themselves in the same situation.
Less than two years ago, in the Spring of 2022, the magazine published an article entitled “The TEAM Lab Resurfaces after Flood” (Sydney Heimer). The flood in February 2020 came at an optimal time for most students, mere weeks before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the rupturing of the water main caused severe flooding in both the Materials Science and Engineering Building and ECB, the impact on student life paled in comparison to the incoming global health emergency.
Before the student organizations working in ECB and the staff in Technical Education and Manufacturing (TEAM) Lab had the opportunity to fully recover from the previous catastrophes, disaster struck again. On the night of September 20, 2023, 55,000 gallons of water rained down from the top floor of ECB, causing all events in the building to shut down for the next three weeks.
While the first official announcement about the flood came from the UW-Madison College of Engineering the following morning, students in the building at the time spread the news across campus, hailing their peers to witness the damage.
As emergency alarms blared, co-chair of the Concrete Canoe Team, Ellie Dingel, recalls their team’s response to the news. After receiving a text from a friend, they ran to ECB and “stood outside watching the flood, thinking about everything that would happen and how [they] would deal with it.”
As news broke, professors and teaching assistants immediately canceled and rescheduled classes taking place in the building. Nothing could be so simple, though, since several classes require the use of TEAM Lab.
TEAM Lab Manager, Carly Benish, describes that “no one knew how long we would be out of the building. The top priority was supporting one of the largest classes, coming in [to TEAM Lab] the following week for their training.”
While some courses in ECB were moved to other buildings, nothing proved more of a feat than moving the entire series of trainings for over 200 freshmen from TEAM Lab to the Makerspace.
In the days to follow, reality set in for students. The flood did not just mean attending class in a different building or online; it meant the lack of a collaborative workspace for studying and a complete standstill for the student organizations that call ECB home. From the Steel Bridge Team and Formula SAE to the Concrete Canoe Team, hundreds of students lost their ability to access the time-sensitive projects they work on every day in preparation for competitions throughout the year.
President of Triangle Fraternity, Logan Chart, describes relocating both the daily study tables and chapter meetings to other locations. “ECB is one of the few big locations we can reserve in the College of Engineering, so it was a nightmare for us to locate new rooms,” Chart explains.
From student organizations to workers, many share a common memory of the weeks after the flood. It was a chance to step back and reorganize during a time when academics and student organizations are usually ramping up. Benish emphasizes, “my immediate concern was not necessarily for the lab itself but for the morale of the team.” Perhaps the flood was to some degree a blessing in disguise?
After the flood, ECB rose again. Upon reopening three weeks later, on October 12, students studied alongside fans scrubbing the air and workers on scaffoldings repairing the damage sustained during the flood. The noise of the air purifiers and presence of plastic mats, while loud and frustrating, serve as a reminder of the importance of sound engineering principles and the community effort required to pick up the pieces after another devastating event in our engineering spaces.